Sometime around midnight on May 1, 1779, British soldiers smashed through the wooden door of General Gold Selleck Silliman’s Fairfield, Connecticut home. They snatched him and his eldest son, William, from their beds.
The soldiers, accompanied by eight armed Tories, confiscated the general’s fusee, a pair of his pistols, his sword, and three hats (one of which was his baby’s). Fortunately the raiders missed the general’s personal papers. Always quick witted, Mary Noyes Fish Silliman, supposedly had hid them, along with the family silver, underneath her nightdress. General Silliman surrendered to protect the lives of his pregnant wife and youngest children. The captors marched the general and his son to the Connecticut coast where a whaleboat waited in the shallow waters. The boat ferried the pair across Long Island Sound to a prison in New York.
The British captured the elder Silliman because he had been a true thorn in their side. Silliman served in the militia, had fought in the battle of Long Island, and served during the colonists’ retreat to New York.
The elder Silliman, a well-off landowner and lawyer, enlisted in the army shortly before the war had erupted. As a cavalry officer he commanded the local militia in which he rose to the rank of Brigadier General and protected Connecticut’s southwest frontier.
Redcoats already occupied Westchester, New York, and Long Island. Now British troops set their sights on the Connecticut coast.[i] According to legend, the British wanted revenge on the small colony of Connecticut because it fiercely opposed British aggression and the suppression of Colonial rights. The redcoats hated this tiny colony and vowed to teach it, and its commander, a lesson. The Continental Army couldn’t know precisely when the British troops would attack, but General Gold Selleck Silliman did everything to keep the citizens safe.
Throughout the spring of 1779, British warships trolled Long Island Sound near Fairfield, Connecticut. That summer the fight neared the fields and forests of Weston, Connecticut, as British Major General William Tryon consumed himself with destroying the morale of the Connecticut people. He and commander Sir Henry Clinton launched a series of hit and run raids.
Mary Noyes Fish Silliman worried over her husband’s fate; she knew ghastly prison ships bobbed on the water, swallowing the unfortunate. However, calm prevailed. She gathered Gold Selleck, her infant son and his father’s namesake along with the rest of her family and servants and headed inland to North Stratford, a less perilous area where they hoped to wait out the war.
The British successfully struck New Haven in early July of 1779. Troops, with loyalist escorts, stormed Yale College. As British boots stomped through the grounds, faculty hurried about the brick walks carting books and other apparatus to safety. Meanwhile, additional British troops sailed toward Fairfield, where they landed on July 7 in the late afternoon.
The Continental Army could not withstand the assault. Waves of British redcoats seemed to wash ashore. They marched to Fairfield Center and burnt it to the ground. During this offensive, Major General William Tryon destroyed 83 houses, 54 barns, 47 shops and stores, two schools, two churches, a jail and a courthouse. Two years earlier, as General Tryon’s forces marched to and from the burning of Danbury, people fought and fled. Weston men defended their land and provided refuge for their fellow colonists. Weston women fled with their children to Devil’s Den, a nearby wilderness spot.
Meanwhile, Mary Silliman spent the summer safe from the guns. Pregnant, and worried about her husband’s condition, she carried on the business of homemaking. Years later, she told young Benjamin Silliman about his birth on August 8, 1779: “Even when on that dreadful night, when a band of armed soldiers broke upon our dwelling, and took from my arms my dear protector…and never shall forget the memorable Sabbath morning, where at the hour of six your birth was announced.”[ii]
With no inkling of when, or if, her husband would return, Mary Silliman tried to fill his space. As a woman who had already lost two children, Mary Silliman doted on Benjamin and his older brother, Gold. Mary’s first husband John Noyes, died when he was thirty-one-years-old. She also already grieved over two children, the first daughter Rebecca died at age six months. The Silliman’s other daughter, Mary, died at age four.[iii]
Ultimately, the British freed General Silliman. The prisoner exchange transpired between two fishing boats anchored in the middle of Long Island Sound. In 1784 the government failed to reimburse Gold Selleck Silliman for expenses used to support his troops. Unable to furnish proper receipts, he personally covered the expenditures. His family’s wealth thus depleted, the Silliman household felt that Gold Silliman not only contributed his fortune, but effectively his life, to the cause of freedom.
Later, Benjamin Silliman, who would become one of the nation’s most renowned scientists, told veterans of the American Revolution that “the interruption of domestic happiness, the exhaustion of public and private wealth, and the immense sacrifice of lives by which our revolution was accomplished, were esteemed a cheap price for the preservation of our ancient privileges, and for the assurance of future security.” [iv]
And thus, from infancy, Gold Silliman, Jr. and Benjamin Silliman learned the value of serving one’s country. As part of the first generation to come of age after the war, Benjamin had the luxury of pursuing nearly any profession, just as John Adams had envisioned: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture.”[v] Where Silliman’s father had studied war, Benjamin Silliman could study mathematics, politics or science. Their father’s legacy endured.
[i] Richard D. Brown. Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700 – 1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
[ii]Mary Silliman. Letter to Benjamin Silliman, Nov. 20, 1802, Silliman Family Papers, Yale University Sterling Memorial Library.
[iv] Benjamin Silliman. Oration before the Society of the Cincinnati for Connecticut: July 6, 1802. 4th of July Orations. Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, California.
[v] John Adams. Letter to Abigal Adams, May 12, 1780. Adams Family Correspondence, www.masshist.org/adams/quotes.cfm (accessed March 2, 2010).
– – enjoyed the article… thanks cathyrn.
– – you did a nice job talking about the general’s story and his family’s suffering – as well as laying out the drama of the british destroying fairfield – an act i first learned about years ago when i went to college there.
Thanks for a great article and continued praise for this website where smaller, yet no less important people, places and events, are well covered, always in an interesting and informative way. I grew up in lower Westchester, NY so this article was particularly enjoyable. Now I live in NYC and my partner has a house in Kingston so we are continuously traveling the same route the Patriots did, whether it’s I-87 or 9W. A sampling: Fort Lee, Tappan, Stony Point, West Point, Newburgh, Fort Montgomery, Tarrytown, Smith’s Clove (Suffern to Central Valley) and, of course, Kingston. If I heard the distant sounds of drums, muskets and cannon I don’t think I’d be shocked.
Great article on an underknown patriot. Thanks for the insight and story. This is what makes this site so awesome!
You’re welcome Eric, I’m glad you enjoyed the story.
Enjoyed this article! I have been quite interested in the British attacks into CT along the border with NY…esp. at Byram Bridge, Sawpits (now Port Chester). This piece reveals the terror with which the colonial families were coping. What confusion, too, with some neighbors professing to be Loyalists, while many others pushed for the revolutionary cause.
Thank you Julie, I’m glad you liked the article. It’s interesting to think about what colonial families endured during the war. You mentioned some attacks that sound worth looking into a bit more!
Thanks for writing Steven. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It sounds like you’ve done a fair amount of retracing history, the area in which you live is rich with the Revolution! Imagine if the Patriots saw that landscape now.
What an absolutely great read. It’s a pleasure to dig into the lives of some of the men and women that are less well known however were still directly involved in the fight for freedom. I had never heard of the Silliman’s before today, thank you!
The full story of this family, with a focus on Mary, is in Joy Day Buel & Richard Buel, Jr., “The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America” (WW Norton, 1984). It’s an overlooked classic that brings these folks to life.
An outstanding movie – “Mary Silliman’s War” – was made from the book by the Buels. It will be reviewed here at Journal of the American Revolution next week.
Thanks Michael. I came across him because of my research into his son, Benjamin Silliman, Jr. New stories in history all the time.
Thanks for the tip Ray – that is a great book indeed.
PBS made a movie of The Way of Duty. The movie is called Mary Silliman’s War.
I’m proud to say I’m a direct descendant of Mary Fish Noyes Silliman Dickinson through her marriage to John Noyes. I have numerous documents and books from the Fish, Noyes and Silliman families.
Thank you for writing this article and bringing attention to the Revolution in southwestern Connecticut. The maritime history of the area — particularly of the raids by both sides back and forth across the Sound — is a fascinating aspect of the war.
Please forgive me if I point out one error in the article. You wrote:
After, as General Tryon’s forces marched to and from the burning of Danbury, people fought and fled.
The burning of Danbury occurred two years earlier in April 1777, when Tryon and his forces landed at Compo Beach (now Westport), marched to Danbury, and were engaged by Silliman, Benedict Arnold, and militia at the Battle of Ridgefield on the return march. The July 1779 attacks on New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk were punitive raids meant in part to cripple the privateers and whaleboats based in those ports. These attacks were fast and dirty; the British did not proceed far inland because they feared being cut off from their ships. In fact, at Fairfield the British fought a running retreat back to the beach the next morning.
If you’d like to read an in-depth description of the burning of Fairfield, please allow me to make a suggestion.
Thank you again!
No forgiveness necessary! Thank you for clarifying that point and I’d love to know what you suggest for reading about the burning of Fairfield.
Correction made in the article. Thanks for the heads up, Jackson.